US snowstorm strands holidaymakers (PHOTOS)
By David Pitt and Margery Beck
The first widespread snowstorm of the season has crawled across the midwestern United States, with whiteout conditions stranding holiday travellers and sending drivers sliding over slick roads - including into a fatal 25-vehicle pileup in Iowa.
The storm, which dumped a foot of snow in parts of Iowa and Wisconsin, was part of a system that began in the Rockies earlier in the week before trekking into the Midwest. It was expected to move across the Great Lakes overnight before moving into Canada.
On the southern edge of the system, powerful storms packing wind and rain damaged homes in Arkansas, peeled roofs off buildings and toppled trucks in Alabama, and led to flight cancellations in Texas.
In Iowa, drivers were blinded by blowing snow and didn't see vehicles that had slowed or stopped on Interstate 35 about 60 miles north of Des Moines, state police said. A chain reaction of crashes involving semitrailers and passenger cars closed down a section of the highway. At least one person was killed.
"It's time to listen to warnings and get off the road," said Iowa State Patrol Col. David Garrison.
Thomas Shubert, a clerk at a store in Gretna near Omaha, Nebraska, said his brother drove him to work in his truck, but some of his neighbours weren't so fortunate.
"I saw some people in my neighbourhood trying to get out. They made it a few feet, and that was about it," Shubert said.
The heavy, wet snow made some unploughed streets in Des Moines nearly impossible to navigate in anything other than a four-wheel drive vehicle. Even streets that had been ploughed were snow-packed and slippery. Eight jack-knifed semitrailers were reported on a section of Interstate 80 east of the city, with portions of the roads closed until the accidents could be cleared.
The storm made travel difficult from Kansas to Wisconsin, forcing road closures, including a portion of Interstate 29 in northern Missouri and part of Interstate 80 in Nebraska. Iowa and Wisconsin activated National Guard troops to help rescue stranded drivers.
Those who planned to fly before the Christmas holiday didn't fare much better.
In Chicago, commuters began Thursday with heavy fog and cold, driving rain, and forecasters said snow would hit by mid-afternoon.
Airlines delayed and cancelled hundreds of flights out of Chicago's O'Hare and Midway international airports. Southwest Airlines, which has a hub at Midway, canceled all of its flights after 4:30pm.
In Texas, American Airlines reported 120 cancellations in Dallas because of thunderstorms.
"We are trying to delay as much as we can, instead of cancelling, because we know that we have many customers who are trying to make their holiday travel plans," said American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.
Before the storm, several cities in the Midwest had broken records for the number of consecutive days without measurable snow.
In the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale, Kristin Isenhart, 38, said her three kids, ages 9, 5 and 3, were asking about going outside to play after school as cancelled for the day.
"They are thrilled that it snowed," she said. "They've asked several times to go outside, and I might bundle them up and let them go."
As far as the region's drought, meteorologists said the storm wouldn't make much of a dent. It takes a foot or more of snow to equal an inch of water, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people lost power in Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska as heavy snow and strong winds pulled down lines. Smaller outages were reported in Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Louisiana.
"The roads have been so bad our crews have not been able to respond to them," said Justin Foss, a spokesman for Alliant Energy, which had 13,000 customers without power in central Iowa. "We have giant four-wheel-drive trucks with chains on them, so when we can't get there it's pretty rough."
The airport at Creston, Iowa, recorded the highest winds, with a gust of 53mph, said Kevin Skow, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Along with Thursday's fatal accident in Iowa, the storm was blamed for road deaths in Kansas and Wisconsin. In southeastern Utah, a woman who tried to walk for help after her car became stuck in snow died Tuesday night.
The owner of the Norske Nook restaurant and bakery in Osseo, a town in west-central Wisconsin that woke up to at least 10 inches of snow, said "blizzardy" conditions were not unusual for the area and that the weather would not upset her business.
"It's our policy to stay open for the customers," said Jean Zingshiem. "In case someone is stranded they'll have somewhere to go."
Blake Landau, a cook serving eggs, roast beef sandwiches and chilli to hungry snowplough drivers at Newton's Paradise Cafe in downtown Waterloo, Iowa, said he has always liked it when it snows on his birthday. He turned 27 on Thursday.
"It's kind of one of those things where it's leading up to Christmas time," Landau said. "We don't know when we get our first snowfall, and I hope we get it by my birthday. It's nice to have a nice snowy Christmas."